By Marlee Moore
Soft lights illuminate a makeshift stable. Shepherds, staffs in hand, pet bleating sheep and slate-gray donkeys. A serene Mary and attentive Joseph watch as the son of God rests, nestled in a manger.
The robed Biblical characters are neighbors, church family, friends.
The animals perfecting the picture of Christ’s birth? Those are courtesy of Daniel Hall and Tickled Pink Petting Zoo.
“We’re creating an experience for people,” said Hall, 34, who founded the Graham-based venture a decade ago.
Hall books live nativity celebrations across the Southeast, from the swamps of Louisiana to Guin on the Alabama-Mississippi line to Pulaski, Tennessee. They’re featured at church functions, community events and even private observances. Hall once hauled a camel to Miami for a backyard nativity.
He and assistant Bill Segrest clock 35 minutes from arrival to showtime. Hall creates a personalized, “pick the zoo we bring to you” experience for Tickled Pink Petting Zoo customers; price varies by animal size, number and availability. He can also provide costumes.
During dress rehearsals with prospective shepherds and wise men, they teach tips and tricks for handling animals — i.e. pull on the sheep’s halter, don’t yank.
“Sheep and goats are the easiest,” Hall said. “If people can get over the intimidation of the camel, it works well.”
Hall said it’s easier than community members cobbling together animals for a performance.
“All my animals have been around each other for years,” Hall said. “No one spooks the other. Safety is my priority.”
Surroundings don’t startle the animals, either. During one outdoor nativity, two firetrucks raced down the street, sirens blazing.
“Our animals didn’t even flinch,” Segrest said.
Hall was raised on a cattle farm in Randolph County, the same property where he now raises his menagerie. He evolved into goat production and served on the Alabama Farmers Federation State Sheep & Goat Committee. His herd grew to include a buffalo, large-horned Watusi cattle, a kangaroo, porcupines, lemurs, macaws, peacocks, capybaras, zebras, tortoises and more.
School program requests poured in, and Hall applied for a U.S. Department of Agriculture exotic animal license. Birthday party bookings led to company events and festivals.
Autauga County Fair President Gary Essary said Hall’s animals lend an exciting, memorable air to the Prattville event.
“People can see exotic animals they don’t get to see every day, like mini cows and camels,” he said. “Daniel has to really work with those animals so little fingers can poke and prod and interact with them. It amazes me how positive an experience it is.”
Hall’s animals are popular on the big screen, too. His parrot has been featured in music videos, and provided talent for Dolly Parton’s “Heartstrings” Netflix show, while his goats, skunks, cows and more score screen time on the TV series “Dwight in Shining Armor.”
“Dan is not only great with animals, he’s pleasant to be around,” said Trace Sargent, founder of Star K9, the animal talent agency that books gigs for Hall. “He truly cares about these animals and cares about creating wonderful experiences for people to learn.”
As for live nativities, Hall’s animals attend indoor events, stationary setups or drive-thrus.
To serve and safeguard his community this Christmas, Hall is organizing a drive-thru nativity at his farm. Check the Tickled Pink Petting Zoo Facebook page for details.
Hall’s December calendar is crammed with nativity bookings, but reactions like “oh my gosh, look at that” and “I’ve never seen one of those before!” never get old.
Although the flash of richly robed wise men leading a camel could steal the show, Hall said the simplest scenes make a statement.
One crisp December night several years ago, cars flooded a tiny church parking lot. Hall, dressed as a shepherd, carried a young sheep as onlookers fixed their eyes on the symbolic Lamb of God.
“I cried,” he said. “When you’re standing there and all eyes are on the lamb and what it means, that touches you.”